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EIU Teaching with Primary Sources

The Art of War: WWI and WWII Posters

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Introduction | Primary Sources and Analysis Tools 
Library of Congress Resources | Primary Source Set

Choose a link below to access printable PDF versions of these materials including additional information, color images and citations.
Art of War: WWI and WWII Posters Resource Booklet 
Primary Source Set


Students are exposed to advertisements and information presented for a specific purpose daily. The colors, images, spokesperson and music used were not selected by chance. There is a multimillion, maybe multibillion dollar industry that studies what companies can do to make us want their product.  Advertisements are so common that often we are subconsciously aware of them but do not give them our undivided attention. 

Posters are a means of giving a specific message to a specific group for a specific reason. When we look at posters as historical documents, we must consider what the poster implies. In less than a single sentence, and on occasion with no words at all, posters are highly selective in the way that they depict the world. The way that a group, race, class or gender is portrayed in a poster can be very biased or skewed to fit the needs of the creator or to raise the desired reaction from viewers.

The word Propaganda originates from the verb propagates which means to spread or multiply.  In science class students may have learned about “propagating” new plants, or increasing the number of plants.  Propaganda means to spread a doctrine or belief. The term is often considered negative or information that is assumed to be a lie. Typically, the information presented is factual, but it is presented in a way that individuals approach with their own bias or preconceived beliefs. The Unites States used propaganda techniques to encourage citizens to conserve energy and support activities on the home front.  Propaganda comes in a variety of forms such as movies, audio, documents, photographs and posters.

Famous images and slogans that originated on posters of past wars are still recognized today. Some of the same techniques that were used to invoke emotion are used today in advertisements, something students will be able to understand. Posters attract our attention and often immediately appeal to some type of emotional reaction.

When reading a poster, decoding and the use of context clues can be helpful. Students must understand that although their first impression is important, they must continue to investigate the attributes of the poster to fully appreciate how the artist developed the entire finished product. Using the Poster Analysis sheet students can deconstruct the poster to consider symbolism and messages.  As a final step, student will consider all of these features to try to understand the possible motivation and goal of the creator and possible reactions of various groups that view the poster.

The Most Famous Poster

Originally published as the cover for the July 6, 1916, issue of Leslie's Weekly with the title "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" this portrait of "Uncle Sam" went on to become--according to its creator, James Montgomery Flagg--"the most famous poster in the world." Over four million copies were printed between 1917 and 1918, as the United States entered World War I and began sending troops into war zones.

Flagg (1877-1960) contributed forty-six works to support the war effort. He was a member of the first Civilian Preparedness Committee organized in New York in 1917 and chaired by Govenor Clarkson. He also served as a member of Charles Dana Gibson's Committee of Pictorial Publicity, which was organized under the federal government's Committee on Public Information, headed by George Creel. Because of its overwhelming popularity, the image was later adapted for use in World War II. Upon presenting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a copy of the poster, Flagg remarked that he had been his own model for Uncle Sam to save the modeling fee. Roosevelt was impressed and replied: "I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model hire. Your method suggests Yankee forebears."

Uncle Sam is one of the most popular personifications of the United States. However, the term "Uncle Sam" is of somewhat obscure derivation. Historical sources attribute the name to a meat packer who supplied meat to the army during the War of 1812--Samuel (Uncle Sam) Wilson (1766-1854). "Uncle Sam" Wilson was a man of great fairness, reliability, and honesty, who was devoted to his country--qualities now associated with "our" Uncle Sam.
Accessed on 2.18.08  at

World War II and Public Service

This Learning Experience was developed by Library of Congress staff to accompany the American Memory Collection “By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943” and is part of the Collection Connection.  Information about this collection is available in the Library of Congress Resources section of this booklet.  Accessed 2.18.08 at 

The nation mobilized for war in the wake of Japan's December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The newly-established War Production Board converted industries from a commercial to a war effort and conserved scarce materials such as steel. Searches on the terms salvage and water produce posters portraying conservation as an integral part of the national defense. In addition to limiting consumption, citizens were asked to contribute money and goods. War loans and the sale of Liberty Bonds covered half of the cost of the war. A search on bonds yields posters encouraging the purchase of stamps and bonds with slogans such as "He gives 100%, you can lend 10%."

Other posters called for specific donations of time and equipment. Searches on terms such as volunteer and enlist yield advertisements calling for people to join the civilian defense and for skilled laborers to build boats for the Navy. A search on binocular also produces U.S. Navy requests for equipment with declarations such as, "No enemy sub will dare lift its eye if you lend your Zeiss or Bausch & Lomb binoculars to the Navy." Meanwhile, a search on defense features posters that provide information about blackouts and air raids (including posters reading, "Keep cool, don't scream, don't run, prevent disorder, obey all instructions") and emphasize that careless conversation about military information can be deadly with calls to "Serve in Silence."

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